From Čapek to Lem: AI in Eastern European Science Fiction

The second online event in a series of workshops on AI Narratives in Central and Eastern Europe will take place on 15 January 2021 and focus on the representations of intelligent machines in Eastern European SF, with a particular focus on the works of Karel Čapek and Stanisław Lem.
Date: 18/12/2020


“Each factory will be making Robots of a different color, a different nationality, a different tongue; […] they’ll no longer be able to conspire with one another…” – Karel Čapek, R.U.R., 1920.


“How do you expect to communicate with the ocean, when you can’t even understand one another?” ― Stanisław Lem, Solaris, 1961


The second online event in a series of workshops on AI Narratives in Central and Eastern Europe will take place on 15 January 2021 and focus on the representations of intelligent machines in Eastern European SF, with a particular focus on the works of Karel Čapek and Stanisław Lem.

Karel Čapek was a Czech playwright who coined the word “robot” – used for the first time in the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which premiered on 25 January 1921, exactly a century ago. Stanisław Lem was a Polish science fiction writer and philosopher, and the author of Solaris (1961) and The Futurological Congress (1971). Lem was born in 1921 and, to mark the anniversary, 2021 has been declared ‘the year of Lem’ in Poland. Our workshop is a celebration of these two centenaries.

To participate in the online workshop, please scroll to the bottom of this page. A detailed program is available below.


Read our blog post about the workshop



Start: 11AM (Central European Time), 15 January 2021



Start: 11:00 AM (CET)

11:00 – 11:10 – Opening remarks: Dr Kanta Dihal (CFI, University of Cambridge)

11:10 – 12:10 – Panel 1. Polish AI Narratives and Stanisław Lem.  Chair: Dr Vít Střítecký.

– Dr Jerzy Stachowicz (University of Warsaw): “The First Robotic Moment: Artificial Humans in Polish SF literature before World War II”

– Dr Bogna Konior (NYU Shanghai): “Automatic Gnosis: On Lem’s Summa Technologiae.”

– Michał Sobczyk (The Lem Institute): “How Lem’s literary legacy is shaping the perception of technological progress in Poland?”

12:10 – 12:30 – Break

12:30 – 1:30 Panel 2. Karel Čapek: a hundred years of robots. Chair: Dr Vít Střítecký.

– Dr Klára Kudlová (Czech Academy of Sciences): “Features of AI and Humanness: Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.”

– Dr Libuše Heczková (Charles University): “Science, Technology and Karel Čapek’s Skepticism.”

– Dr Rudolf Rosa, Patrícia Schmidtová and Klára Vosecká (THEaiTRE project): “Inverting R.U.R. with Artificial Intelligence: THEaiTRobot is Generating a Theatre Play Script to Mark 100 Years of Čapek’s Work.”

Finish: 1:30 PM (CET)




Abstracts and Speaker Bios

Panel 1 – Polish AI Narratives and Stanisław Lem

The First Robotic Moment: Artificial Humans in Polish SF literature before World War II 

‘We are tempted by the prospect of artificial intelligences as our companions. That taking care of us will be their jobs. That we will take comfort in their company and conversation. This is where we are, and this is where we are pointing’ – wrote Sherry Turkle, introducing the concept of the robotic moment. This significant civilizational change is, in her opinion, around the corner. Many of us also believe we are in a robotic moment now. We are currently discussing how robots and artificial intelligence will change the world. We often treat them as entities that appeared on Earth out of the blue – instantly in the form of chatbots and Boston Dynamics machines. But robots gained their popularity before 1939. What the technology looks like today, how it is used, what fears or hopes it arouses – may be linked to what shapes it took in the literature of that time. To become a part of what is called – after R. Barbrook – the ‘imagined future,’ intelligent robots had to enter popular culture as characters The time when the vision of robots as artificial humans and the word ‘robot’ – coined by Karel Čapek became popular is what we call the first robotic moment. This talk focuses on a few examples of robots in Polish science-fiction literature before 1939 and emphasizes how the political and cultural situation influenced the idea of what a robot should be.

Jerzy Stachowicz is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Polish Culture, University of Warsaw. His academic interests focus on issues of new media, linguistic practices, and the role of linguistic media in reshaping other media and cultural practices. Other areas of academic interests: history of popular culture, Polish science fiction literature of the interwar period, media archeology. He is also a member of the Polish science fiction fandom and a columnist of the fantasy and SF magazine “Nowa Fantastyka”.

Automatic Gnosis: On Lem’s Summa Technologiae

Titled after Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas, Lem’s quintessential theoretical work, Summa Technologiae (1964), reveals his preoccupation with long-term techno-biological evolution of humanity. Focusing on artificial life and ‘the breeding of information’ as examples of existential, rather than utilitarian, technologies, this talk explores Lem’s unique reading of cybernetics, and reflects on its relationship to the dominant militaristic model of cybernetics during the Cold War. Lem’s study of cybernetic evolution can be read as a theology of technology, where the inhuman determinant beyond history is not divinity or ideology, but reason, artifice, and contingency. Simultaneously, the talk reflects on the place of the Summa within Lem’s oeuvre, and in the context of the 1960s Communist bloc and communism’s own tautological ideas of political evolution of civilizations. By focusing on Poland’s unique historical position, defined by occupations rather than imperial ascent, as is usual for regions that produce science-fiction, it speculates on the relevance of Lem’s work on artificial life for debates around artificial intelligence today.

Bogna Konior is a writer and a scholar currently based at NYU Shanghai, Interactive Media Arts department and the AI & Culture Research Centre. She is interested in the human relationship to and imagination of the inhuman, especially at the intersection of large-scale ecological and technological paradigm shifts. Her work can be found at dion Sample Description

How Lem’s literary legacy is shaping the perception of technological progress in Poland?

This presentation will focus on Stanislaw Lem’s science fiction works and how they have impacted public debate and awareness on the emerging technologies. It will also try to examine if it is still possible to use Lem’s ideas and literary concepts to spark interest in the new technologies in the wider Polish public. Poland is increasingly seen as the software house of Europe, based on the large pool of ICT and STEM talents and rising tech companies, but still Polish national identity is deeply rooted in history and often this is a barrier to release the full creative potential of this nation. Using selected Lem’s works we shall try to imagine how science fiction can foster more forwarding thinking in the general public.

Michał Sobczyk is a young professional with an extensive background in technology, diplomacy and government affairs. At the Lem Institute, he leads on international engagement.


Panel 2 – Karel Čapek: a hundred years of robot

Features of AI and Humanness: Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.

In the dramatic narrative of R.U.R. (1921), the author presents a range of characters situated on the scale between human/naturally intelligent – non-human/machine intelligent – non-human/artificially intelligent. The dramatic narrative as a whole voices a substantial warning: the motifs of scientists and businessmen engaged in the creation of artificial workers were not moral and the project was stained by the original intentions. Also, politicians and well-meaning but short-sighted humanists add to the twist the project of Rossum’s Universal Robots gets, and the result brings the eradication of humankind and general catastrophe. Just like other avant-garde writers, Čapek combines the fascination with the latest (or even future) scientific development and the perspective of Christian values. In his drama, Bible and science meet in order to delimit the features of humanness. Despite the general warning against artificial intelligence, the narrative sets also strong hope in it. This, however, is derived from the capacity of humankind to create artificial intelligence which is led by the deepest human qualities (such as the capacity to face hardships, to procreate, the willingness for self-sacrifice).

Dr Klára Kudlová is a literary historian and researcher (since 2006) at the Institute of Czech Literature of the Czech Academy of Sciences (CAS). Currently, she takes part in writing of the lexicon of Czech drama, and works on a monograph about the leading Czech writer of the 1990s, Jáchym Topol. She also lectures on the History of European Culture at Charles University.

Science, Technology and Karel Čapek’s Skepticism

“So far, every technical discovery is a piece of success and a piece of hell. It would be a desperate prospect for the future if I did not firmly believe that there are other, completely different sources of salvation for the human,” wrote Karel Čapek in his article ‘The Temple of Labour’ in 1920. My talk focuses on the examples of Karel and Josef Čapeks’ own reflections of the drama R.U.R. and the heated debates that accompanied its success in Europe and North America (by 1923, it had been translated into thirty languages). I will discuss two major questions raised by the drama R.U.R: the conflict between knowledge and technology as well as between destruction and salvation, and how humankind uses its own image to construct the future despite its real being/needs. “There is nothing more alien to man than his own image” said Alquist in R.U.R.

Dr Libuše Heczková is an associate professor of Czech and Comparative Literature at Charles University. Her current research concentrates on women in the Czech modern society, literature and visual culture of modernism and avantgarde. She published a monograph about Czech women's literary criticism Writing Minervas (2010). She was also a member of the team that published the history of Czech literary modernism between 1905-1947 in three volumes (2010-2017) and the Glossary of the Catchwords of the Avantgarde (2012).

Inverting R.U.R. with Artificial Intelligence: THEaiTRobot is Generating a Theatre Play Script to Mark 100 Years of Čapek’s Work

Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. was the first theatrical play written by a human about robots (and humans). It premiered on 25 January 1921. A hundred years later, with all the current advances in natural language processing and artificial neural networks, we have turned the idea around in our THEaiTRE project. On 25 January 2021, we will premiere “AI: When a robot writes a play” (“AI: Když robot píše hru”), a theatre play about humans (and robots) written by our artificial intelligence called THEaiTRobot. It is made possible by computational linguists joining forces with theatre experts for this unique research project. What is this project about and how has it been developed? What challenges have we faced? What does the AI-generated script look like? …and do we actually want AI to create art?

Dr Rudolf Rosa is a researcher in the field of computational linguistics at the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, Charles University. Rudolf is a robopsychologist and an expert in multilingual language processing. He is the head of research in the THEaiTRE project.
Klára Vosecká is an undergraduate student of directing and dramaturgy at DAMU (Theatre Academy of Performing Arts in Prague). Klára is one of the theatre experts on the THEaiTRE project.
Patrícia Schmidtová is a graduate student of Computational Linguistics at the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, Charles University. Her major academic and professional interest is in Natural Language Processing. She currently focuses on Natural Language Generation and her diploma thesis researches approaches to make long texts (namely theatre plays) more coherent.